Nicky Carpenter did everything with gusto — so much so that she seemed to have crammed several lifetimes into one.
Carpenter, 82, who died Aug. 14 in Plymouth of an undisclosed illness, served as the Minnesota Orchestra’s board chairwoman from 1990 to 1995. In that time, she was instrumental in solving a budget crisis, strengthening the orchestra’s endowment and hiring music director Eiji Oue.
Twenty years later, she played an important role in an even more destabilizing crisis at the state’s largest arts organization. A member of the negotiating committee during the orchestra’s rancorous 15-month labor lockout, Carpenter helped pave the way for a settlement in 2014, advocating a compromise in a Star Tribune commentary and reaching out to musicians in back-channel meetings.
Carpenter, a lifetime board member, was quick to help heal the breach between musicians and management when the orchestra took a historic trip to Cuba the next year.
“She was a fierce negotiator, but at the end, after we played our first concert in Havana, she was the first one in line to hug the musicians as we got off the bus,” violist Ken Freed said. “That trip was a turning point between management and the musicians, and those hugs were important.”
Minnesota Opera, MacPhail Center for Music, Minnesota Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television and the League of American Orchestras also benefited from her expertise.
She was a pioneer, said former orchestra chairman Warren Mack. Along with Luella Goldberg, the first female chair, she “represented a tide of women moving from being adjunct members of society to being fully engaged.
Women at the time could chair the Symphony Ball but not the board. But Nicky and Luella broke that barrier, showing that they could be as good as men — and then some.
“She had great insight, great intelligence and great balance. You could always trust her to get it right.”
Freed said he and Carpenter worked on a 10-year music education project for youngsters and teachers: “She believed music had the power to move souls and to heal.”
‘Committed to community’
Born Josephine Bremer Benz in St. Paul to philanthropists George and Louise Bremer Benz, she disliked her first name. “Nicky” came from her German-speaking father, who called her schnickelfritz, German for “rascal.”
Carpenter grew up immersed in religious study and arts and culture. After graduating from St. Paul Academy, she studied European history at Vassar College, minoring in German. She later served on the board of Vassar.
“There are people who are abstainers and there are people who are contributors,” said Joan Safford Wright, Carpenter’s Vassar roommate. “Nicky was committed to community, and that was true all her life. Her contributions to the cultural life of the Twin Cities are unbelievable.”
Her sense of service sprung, in part, from her deep faith. “She never tried to foist her faith on you, but showed it to you by her virtuous example,” said Wright. “And I say that as someone who loved her dearly and is also an atheist.”
As a longtime regent of St. John’s University in Collegeville, she also was an ardent supporter of the Saint John’s Bible, the only handwritten and illuminated Bible created in the past 500 years.
She was preceded in death by her husband, Thomas Carpenter, and sons James K. and George T. Carpenter. Survivors include daughter Virginia E. Carpenter of the Twin Cities. A mass will be held Sept. 7 at 11 a.m., Church of St. Bartholomew, 630 E. Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata, with interment at St. John’s Abbey Cemetery in Collegeville.